“I think he was having fun teasing me. What do you think?” Daniel Johnston‘s mother and father are still trying to figure out their perplexing child, even now, when he’s 44 years old. Early on in The Devil and Daniel Johnston, they admit that “Dan’s annoying sometimes,” but really, he’s a genius. And so they go on, trying to fathom and feeling overcome.
Their effort is expanded and also compressed in Jeff Feuerzeig’s stark, smart documentary, which compiles not only memories of their experiences with Dan—as a child, teen, and adult—but also those of his friends, professional acquaintances, and fans. For the uninitiated, Johnston is a pop music cult figure, once praised by Kurt Cobain as “the greatest living songwriter.” His songs are excruciatingly personal, small, and messy. His performances—and the film includes tapes from various times during his tumultuous life—range from arresting to creepy, mesmerizing to meltdowny.
The youngest son of a fundamentalist Christian family in New Cumberland, West Virginia, Johnston appears as a child to be adorably quirky (his basement room there is now recreated in Waller, Texas, where he still lives with his parents). Though he was “a trial,” according to his mom, Mabel, in home movie footage he looks pleasantly awkward. Friend and fellow artist David Thornberry attests to Dan’s ingenuity and energy, calling him “the new art star”: “He never sits down and says, ‘What am I going to do?’ He just grabs something.” He makes super-8 movies (where he plays himself and his curler-headed mother), draws oddball images (eyeballs with legs, Casper the Friendly Ghost, ungainly figures that recall early Crumb) and audiocassette tapes. His music tends to the personal narrative, early on aware of his difference: “We don’t really know what you do, / The problem that you have, / And this problem makes you ill. / The artist walks alone.”
While Dan’s feeling lonely, his mom is worried that he’s flitting away his time; the worst thing he might become is an “unprofitable servant of the Lord,”, and this seems precisely where he’s headed (as Thornberry recalls, Dan called himself “an unserviceable prophet of the Lord” in response to his mother). His extensive self-documentation, as in Capturing the Friedmans, is sometimes eerie, as The Devil and Daniel Johnston has an abundance of material from which to cull its storyline. After high school, Dan’s oddities become more pronounced: he runs off to join a carnival, then makes his way to Austin, Texas, where, during the ‘80s, he worked at McDonalds and his music and self-performance found an audience (even, in 1985, a brief stint on an MTV show spotlighting the Austin music scene). Hailed as a visionary, he meets local singer Kathy McCarty, who tries to keep his growing affection for her tamped down: she likes him well enough, and they make music together with her band, but she recognizes in his strangeness a distressing instability.
The love of Dan’s life is someone else, anyway. And of course she’s a lost love, so that he can yearn for her forever, devoting songs and stories and drawings to her, or more precisely, to the idea of “pure love” she represents. Dan had met Laurie Allen at Kent State, where he spent a brief time looking to cultivate his artistic talents (before the carnival and Austin). “She inspired a thousand songs,” says Daniel, “And then I knew I was an artist.” Dan’s desire is overwhelming, reduced in a shot of Laurie the documentary uses repeatedly, to underline her frozenness in time and in his heart; Thornberry notes, “When she married someone else, it was even better. Then he could really pine.” (He adds that the fact that her husband is an undertaker is “even better” than the previous “even better.”)
Losing Laurie is the occasion for some tentative self-realization (the film shows here a grimly literal illustration for a song: with the lyric, “I had lost my mind” appears a drawing of his head cracked open). Johnston’s lifelong love for her provides him something of a throughline, but his story is arduous and profoundly uneven (his cassette collections of songs include titles range from “Songs of Pain” and “Fear Yourself” to the irrepressible “Hi, How Are You”). And his pain takes increasingly violent and unhinged forms: in 1986, he drops acid at a Butthole Surfers concert, and shortly thereafter, attacks his manager at the time with a pipe.
Institutionalized here for the first time, Johnston will go on to be diagnosed and medicated for bipolar disorder (mood swings and hallucinations), repeatedly hospitalized and returned to Mabel and Bill, unable to fix what’s so clearly broken (one especially harrowing moment is recalled by a tearful Bill: he and Daniel are piloting a small plane, and Daniel crashes it, saying, “God promises a safe landing”). The film doesn’t indict the family (including sister Margie, and brother Dick), though it makes visible a complex, troubled history. (When Daniel asserts he has “music in my heart,” the film cuts to his mother, worrying, “I had a rock inside my heart.”)
Johnston’s celebrity is premised on his fragility as much as his talent: his fans include Gibby Haynes (whose interview while seated in his dentist’s chair having a tooth drilled seems stunty), Beck, Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo, and his desperately loyal manager Jeff Tartakov (who appears here handwriting labels on cassettes to send to mail-order customers). This fragility is at once appealing and alarming: Daniel’s voice quivers when he sings, during his most robust performances as well as during those where he seems to be breaking apart on stage.
While the film can’t recreate the experience of mental illness or emotional collapse, it does imagine what it might be like, in disturbing sometimes remarkable ways. A couple of times, it “reenacts” scenes, using point-of-view imagery to show Dan’s frantic rush to assault an elderly woman he believes to be demonic, or his run to a soda vending machine as he decides he wants to be the spokesman for Mountain Dew (that he understands himself as an ideal commercial promoter and product is striking). Or, as Austin music journalist Louis Black recalls Dan’s pipe-attack on his manager, the soundtrack includes the sound of water near the bridge where it happened, putting you inside someone’s head—Black’s, the victim’s, or Johnston’s—amid the chaos and fear of the moment.
In showing so much of Daniel Johnston, Feuerzeig’s film doesn’t offer a compete portrait so much as it reveals the impossibility of knowing him (or, in a broader frame, anyone else). Most pop culture narratives make artists almost too available, perhaps especially in their pain and disarray. Incisive and rewarding, The Devil and Daniel Johnston explores the connections between performance and identity, self-projection and consumption, while respecting the elusiveness of its subject.